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The Pilot Shortage — Is It Real and What Could It Mean?

The Pilot Shortage — Is It Real and What Could It Mean?Remember the scene in the film “Catch Me If You Can” when the airline pilots, dressed in their crisp, blue Pan Am uniforms, emerge from the cab, and stride slow motion into the New York City hotel, gorgeous flight attendants in tow?

That golden age of air travel image of the pilot—high pay, great benefits, free travel, public respect—has somewhat faded over time, and many in the aviation industry are concerned that there won’t be enough pilots to meet future demands.

Over the past several years, some numbers and statistics have been released indicating that a so-called pilot shortage is indeed happening. Is there really a pilot shortage? And if so, what does it mean to the industry?

A Look at Some Numbers

According to the Federal Aviation Administration’s U.S. Civil Airmen Statistics, the FAA issued a little over 55,000 student pilot certificates in 2011. That’s up over 100 from last year, but still falls short of the almost 67,000 student licenses in 2001. In 2011, the FAA issued just over 8,500 commercial pilot certificates, down from a high of 12,299 in 2002.

Boeing recently published its "2012 Pilot and Technician Outlook," an industry go-to guide for accurate predictions of future air traffic volumes and demand. Boeing projects a need for approximately one million new commercial airline pilots and maintenance technicians by 2031, including 460,000 new commercial airline pilots and 601,000 maintenance technicians.

In their “pilot outlook,” Boeing stated that a pilot shortage has already arisen in many regions of the world. Airlines around the world are expanding their fleets and flight schedules to meet growing demand in emerging markets, and Asia in particular is experiencing delays and operational interruptions due to pilot scheduling constraints.

Regulatory Reasons for the Decline?

If the number of new pilots is decreasing, while the need for them is increasing, what has caused the discrepancy? Some regulatory changes might be to blame.

The rise of regionals. The start could be traced back to 1978 when the Airline Deregulation Act became federal law, removing government-subsidized airfares and allowing free-market competition to drive down ticket prices.

Lower fares and competition among major carriers meant that airline unions lost some of their bargaining power. Lower profits drove some majors to drop point-to-point routes in favor of hub-based routing.

Regional airlines became more popular, but they hired less-experienced pilots for less than their colleagues at the major carriers. Today, a first officer at a regional airline starts out making around $25,000 a year — not exactly a competitive salary.

Retirement age extended. In December 2007, the FAA issued a statement extending the mandatory retirement age for commercial pilots from 60 to 65 years of age. When the new rule went into effect, there happened to be a wave of pilots preparing to retire, which could have paralyzed the industry with pilot shortages. The extension delayed many pilot retirements for five years to December 2011, and some believe all those pilots who began retiring towards the end of 2011 created an increase in demand for new pilots.

Rest requirements increased. Around that same time in late December 2011, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the FAA announced a new commercial pilot fatigue rest requirement. The new rule requires that every pilot rest at least 10-hours prior to a flight duty period — a two-hour increase over the old rules. The new rule also requires that a pilot must sleep uninterrupted for eight hours within the 10-hour rest period. The new rules in turn required many of the majors to hire thousands of new pilots to adhere to the new rest requirements, resulting in significant new hiring across the board.

Increase in flight hours. Another new FAA rule announced in February 2012 will require flight captains to have an additional 1,000 hours of flight time above the 1,500 to receive airline transport pilot (ATP) certification. Both captains and first officers will have to undertake additional training to receive the ATP, including 50 hours of multi-engine flight experience. The rule was enacted in response to the 2009 Colgan Air crash in Buffalo, N.Y. and will take effect in August 2013. The increased training hours will add significant time and cost to new pilots trying to graduate.

Other Possible Factors Fueling a Shortage

Expense of flight school. Over the years, financing a pilot education has become more expensive and harder to get a loan for. Flight school for commercial airline pilot training can cost as much as $80,000 — usually on top of already-existing college degrees. The military’s G.I. Bill no longer pays for stand-alone flight training, and federal financier Sallie Mae now only provides tuition loans for certain flight schools because of high post-9/11 default rates.

Changes in the military. More pilots are opting to stay in the military rather than fly in the private sector. This has reduced the supply pool of military-trained pilots being hired by airlines. Also, the number of pilots in the military has greatly reduced, in part due to the increased use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV).

Industry Outlook Looks Good

Despite the challenges outlines above, the future looks bright for the aviation industry as a whole. As the U.S. and world economy grows and airlines order thousands of new commercial jetliners over the next 20 years, the demand for pilots, mechanics and instructors will only increase.

As a new generation of airplanes takes over, airplane reliability will improve, maintenance check intervals will lengthen and the requirement for maintenance personnel will continue to expand with the size of the global fleet.

On the general aviation (GA) front, the FAA sees the demand for business aviation growing over the long term, and projects GA hours flown to increase an average of 2.2 percent a year through 2031.

For pilots, opportunities abound: The Asia Pacific region will demand an estimated 185,600 pilots. Europe will be second, requiring more than 100,000 pilots by 2031, and in North America, the demand will be for 69,000 new pilots in the next 20 years.

Is there a threat of a pilot shortage? Perhaps — but if so, it a reflection of growing demand for pilots, and that is a good thing for pilots and the industry.

As individuals, we can help stave off a future shortage by encouraging the next generation of potential pilots to go for it, train properly and take advantage of the career opportunities available to them. Because, despite changes in the industry, getting paid to fly a plane is still a pretty cool way to earn a paycheck.

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